Goldfish, blooms and fruited rice: How to celebrate the spring equinox in days of darkness

Mackensy Lunsford
Southern Kitchen

Louisa Shafia's East Nashville kitchen smells like cardamom and almonds. In the front yard, a Japanese cherry tree is blooming and the warming air smells slightly of flowers. It's no wonder this time of year, the scented bloom after the cold, wet winter, is cause for celebration in so many cultures. 

The vernal equinox falls on March 20 this year. Shafia, chef and author of "The New Persian Kitchen" cookbook, celebrates Nowruz, the Persian New Year.

Persians mark the equinox, a day of equal light and dark, with the haft-sin table, sometimes spelled haft-seen. Somewhat of an altar to spring, the table is decorated with sofreh, symbols of rebirth and good fortune in the year to come.

Most of the sofreh start with the Farsi letter "S," pronounced "seen," and are often arranged in groups of seven for an extra dose of good luck. Some are universal spring symbols like the sonbol, or hyacinth blooms. Others are uniquely Nowruz traditions, including a bowl of live goldfish symbolizing progress. 

Louisa Shafia's display of her haft-sin or haft-seen arrangement that holds several symbolic items including the goldfish shaped marzipan, for Persian New Year, pictured in her home in Nashville, Friday, March 11, 2022.

The fish have also generated some controversy with animal rights activists, who chafe at the idea of goldfish crammed gill to gill for sale in holiday markets. "They're in these tanks with a billion other ones waiting to be bought for the New Year," Shafia said.

To save at least a few of them, Shafia makes golden marzipan fish instead, beautifully embellished with edible paint and glitter. "I just thought this was a good substitute," she said. "Number one, marzipan is delicious."

Shafia first spotted marzipan fish in an Italian bakery in Brooklyn. Charmed by the old Sicilian tradition, the chef also thought the almond paste creatures would make a sweet addition to Nowruz celebrations. 

Louisa Shafia prepared a goldfish shaped marzipan for her haft-Sin or haft-seen table, displaying symbolic dishes that represent life for the Persian New Year, pictured in her home in Nashville, Friday, March 11, 2022.

She outsourced some from a bakery to sell in her online Persian culinary shop, Feast by Louisa. The fish arrived in an inauspicious state. "The little tails were broken off," she said. "It was very tragic."

This year, she took things into her own hands, pressing almond paste into molds and hand-decorating each fish with edible paint and glitter. They're strikingly similar to the real thing, only edible. "You end up with cruelty-free goldfish," she said.

The fish will share Shafia's table with sabzeh, or sprouts, to represent rebirth. The sweet porridge samanu will represent happiness. Senjed, or the dried fruit of the lotus tree, represents love, while seer, or garlic, symbolizes health, as does the seeb, or apple. Serkeh, or vinegar, will represent the wisdom that comes with age. 

A haft-sin table display includes traditional symbols of rebirth and often literature considered holy, here represented by poetry.

This year, we could use more traditions like Shafia's to usher in more light and luck. With Easter coming late, we'll celebrate spring twice at my home. We'll open the curtains and let in the light and plant tight little bulbs to later unfurl into flowers in our new and so-far blank yard. 

The pea shoots are poking through the garden, so we'll pick some and eat them in spring salads with the blossoms from redbud trees if we can find them. They taste a bit like tart cucumbers, and we ate them frequently when we still lived in the mountains. 

Louisa Shafia makes a goldfish shaped marzipan, a replacement for a live goldfish to place on a half-Sin or half-Seen table display for the Persian New Year, pictured in her home, in Nashville, Friday, March 11, 2022.

I'll also cook a few dishes for good luck with the dawning of longer days, adding a special prayer for the resolution of conflict abroad. 

Rice is a symbol of rebirth in many cultures, including in Asia where it's eaten for good luck and where it also symbolizes a link between heaven and earth. Similarly, in Ukraine, holidays including Orthodox Easter are sometimes marked with sweetened grain dishes called Kutia.

Often, families leave bowls of Kutia on the table overnight with spoons so ancestors can eat. It's an offering to the dead, but also a reminder that light will come after the darkness. 

More recipes:Try this recipe for ash reshteh, or Persian bean, herb and noodle soup, for the New Year

Fesenjan:Persian fesenjan is a sweet-and-sour stew, rich with ground walnuts and tart pomegranate

Tamales, rice and noodle soup:New Years foods to bring you luck in the coming year

Carolina Gold rice pudding 

Carolina Gold Rice Pudding with Strawberries

Here, we've turned the idea of Kutia into a fruited rice pudding. Enjoy it and think of both the light ahead and those still waiting for the light to come. Perhaps leave some on your table as an offering for those who can't enjoy the spring this year.

Carolina Gold rice is a medium-grain, aromatic rice from the South Carolina Lowcountry. When stirred, it releases starch similarly to Arborio rice, which makes it a perfect substitute in risotto and rice pudding. As such, if you can't find Carolina Gold, try making this with Arborio.

While rice pudding is commonly served chilled, try this one when warm to enhance its inherently creamy texture.

Serves: 8

Total time: 1 hour and 15 minutes

Ingredients

Instructions

In a medium bowl, combine the strawberries with 3 tablespoons of the sugar, the lime zest and lime juice, and 1/8 teaspoon of the salt. Stir to combine and let sit at room temperature while preparing the rice pudding.

In a large pot or Dutch oven with a lid, combine the water, rice and remaining 2 teaspoons salt. Bring to a simmer over medium heat, stirring occasionally. Cover and reduce the heat to low. Cook, stirring occasionally until the water has mostly been absorbed and the rice is slightly al dente, about 15 minutes.

Stir in the milk, remaining 1 1/2 cups sugar, vanilla bean seeds and pod, and cinnamon. Increase the heat to medium-low and cook, uncovered and stirring occasionally, until the liquid has been absorbed, about 25 minutes.

Stir in the heavy cream and continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until the pudding is thick and creamy and the rice is tender, about 25 minutes longer. Serve warm or chilled, topped with the strawberries and fresh mint.

Mackensy Lunsford is the food and culture storyteller for USA TODAY Network's South region and the editor of Southern Kitchen.

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Reach me: mlunsford@southernkitchen.com